For over a year, Salon B bibliocafé, a café/library/art gallery on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal served as my home office away from home. Though the concept behind that particular café is deserving of a separate post (the café is located above, and affiliated with, a funeral home– yessir, and a very chi chi one at that), what I liked about it was the fact that you could stay for hours without being shooed out or stared down, the music (sometimes Cirque du Soleil, sometimes Nancy Sinatra duets), and the little piece of chocolate or candy that accompanied my cappuccinos. Maybe I was missing the larger point of this controversial café’s raison d’être but to me it was simply a great place to work, with big windows, delicious paninis, and very friendly staff. Free wireless access was the icing on the cake.
Since acquiring a laptop last year, wireless is no longer the icing; very often, it’s the cake. I’ve added Internet access to the mental list of must-haves—proximity to home, good cappuccinos, a relaxed atmosphere and so forth—that help me to choose one coffee shop over another. By ‘Internet access’ I mean free access, of course. Sorry, Starbucks/Second Cup.
Unfortunately, getting coffee and free wifi in Toronto has proven surprisingly difficult. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places. But in the downtown-centre/west core, say Annex-to-Queen-West, I have found very few spots of which I would gladly become a regular. Lots of otherwise great cafés don’t offer wireless (though occasionally one can pick up stray signals). I have also come across several locales that advertise free internet access, but that in various ways make it inconvenient or uncomfortable to actually use it.
In contrast, Montreal is bursting with free hotspots. My impression is that providing free wifi is seen (correctly, in my view and given my personal habits) as a way to draw customers in, even if they do stay a little longer than owners would like. The Île Sans Fil project has done a lot to encourage downtown establishments (including Salon B) to offer free wireless access on their premises. Java U on St.-Denis and Café République on ave. Bernard are just two locales that even provide customers with a way of accessing the Internet without laptops—iGotcha Media‘s ‘webpads,’ ad-sponsored touchscreen units great for checking email and such. (A full list of Montreal locations offering these webpads is available here.)
Montreal boasts 147 Île Sans Fil spots and 61 iGotcha webpad locations. That’s far more free access points than we appear to have in Toronto, which we all know is the bigger city. (A list of 39 free wifi hotspots is provided here by Wireless Toronto, a non-profit group that works to improve wireless access as a community-building initiative. A total of 85 hotspots are listed in this directory, some of which require a credit card for use.)
I can only guess that this situation stems from T.O. café owners’ reluctance to risk having their unique atmosphere sabotaged by hordes of poor students buying a tea and staying 5 hours glued to their computer screens, taking up space. An understandable fear, but to those who still think along these lines, I would offer as a counter-example Montreal’s Le Dépanneur Café, located in Mile End. At this gorgeous café where live music, kitschy decor and bottled soda are the norm, ethernet Internet access is offered for three laptops in the back on a first come, first serve basis. It’s the perfect mix of providing customers with the access they want and need and maintaining the unique ambiance of the café which is the reason Dépanneur is so popular in the first place. Why couldn’t such a concept work in Toronto?
Perhaps the apparent lack of wifi-friendly cafés in our city versus in Montreal is more indicative of the centralization of free wireless efforts in that city than of any particular ill will on the part of Toronto café owners. And on the plus side, it does seem that more T.O. establishments offer free wireless of their own accord rather than through companies like iGotcha, which is praise-worthy in that it is also more often advertising-free.
My next post won’t be so ‘Montreal rocks, T.O. stinks’. Despite the duds, my search for wifi-friendly cafés in downtown Toronto did yield a few gems. I’ll have reviews of these and some wifi-less but still neat coffee shops I stumbled upon over the past few weeks. Stay tuned—their identities revealed in Caffeine & Wireless, Post #2.
- Salon B bibliocafé | 4231, boulevard St.-Laurent
- Java U | 4065, rue St.-Denis & other locations in Montreal
- Café République | 1051, rue Bernard & other locations in Montreal
- Le Dépanneur Café | 206, rue Bernard